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Nature can be a model for success in West Virginia

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Jill M. Watkins Jill M. Watkins
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Jill M. Watkins, principal with Watkins Design Works, is an NCIDQ-Certified interior designer with more than 20 years of experience in commercial interior design and more than 16 years devoted to sustainable design. Many of the ideas in this article are taken from the "Rocky Mountain Institute" white paper, "Building Community Prosperity Through Natural Capitalism," which can be found at rmi.org.

Green building and issues of sustainability appear to be at a crossroads in West Virginia. 

Several factors contribute to this. One, the state Legislature adopted the ASHRAE Standard 90.1-2007 for energy use in commercial buildings last fall. Now, West Virginia energy standards are finally in line with the majority of the country, including our neighboring states, yet still not at the forefront of current code adoption. (Maryland adopted the most recent energy code, ASHRAE Standard 90.1-2010.) 

Two, the so-called "war on coal" and the collateral damage of climate change from burning fossil fuels has heightened our awareness of broader air and water pollution issues, the potential of transitional energy resource extraction such as Marcellus Shale and the possibilities of renewable energy generation technologies statewide. Of course, awareness and action are two completely separate concepts that we must reconcile. 

Three, the chemical leak in the Kanawha Valley garnered residents' attention statewide to the importance of infrastructure security and protection. Most people assume their water and air and soil are safe. Many people trust corporations, utilities and elected officials to look out for them. West Virginians continue learning the hard way that this is not always the case. What could all this mean for the future of a truly sustainable economy in West Virginia? In a word: growth. 

Growth and true sustainability can happen through three proven means: First, invest in increased resource productivity by improving efficiency. This simply means filling the gaps in our current economy to make its residents more resilient and less vulnerable to influences of the global economy. Many communities and organizations around the state are already doing this. Some examples include:

 

  • Energy efficiency programs that create jobs and save money. This is the impetus for the Charleston Area Alliance's "Energy Efficiency in the East End" project. 
  • Local ownership can generate wealth in communities. The dilapidated buildings legislation that just passed is a good step in this direction. 
  • Develop connections between local buyers and suppliers. Many organizations are involved with this, including the Sustainability Institute at Bridgemont Community and Technical College and the Center for Economic Options, among others. 
  • Downtown revitalization creates many benefits for residents. There are Main Street organizations throughout the state and projects like the West Virginia Community Development Hub's "Turn This Town Around." 
  • Community supported agriculture is becoming more popular, not only among individuals, but also among schools and businesses who focus on the health of their users. 
  • Business mentoring can be crucial for entrepreneurs and start-ups, and the West Virginia Department of Commerce provides free training and mentoring in communities all around the state. 

 

Two, shift to nature-inspired economic models. When we work in concert with nature, rather than try to control or ignore natural systems, efficiencies are realized, waste becomes part of a supply and demand model (waste = food), jobs are created and the health of communities and their residents are restored. In West Virginia, we pride ourselves on the state's beautiful natural environment. We go to state parks for long weekends. We go rafting or hiking or hunting. Maybe if we're lucky, we own a condo at Snowshoe Resort in order to "get away from it all." If nature nurtures our soul, why do humans treat it as a separate concept? A place to go to, rather than a place to be with? 

Charlottesville, Va., architect William McDonough said, "Imagine buildings that produce their own oxygen, distill water, accrue solar energy, change with the seasons and produce no waste." In essence, design buildings like trees. Design with nature; mimic nature. Sound too esoteric? Consider these real examples: 

 

  • Probably the best known example of biomimicry is Velcro, designed in 1941 by Swiss engineer George de Mestral. The design of this familiar product is taken from the way burdock burrs attach themselves to our clothing. 
  • Columbia Forest Products, located in Craigsville, developed a formaldehyde-free, soy-based adhesive for plywood sheets that is designed to mimic the adhesive pads of blue mussels, organisms that can adhere themselves to many different kinds of substrates. 
  • Architect Mick Pearce and engineering firm Arup studied the tunnels and chimneys of termite mounds and designed a 300,000 square foot shopping center in Harare, Zimbabwe that has no air conditioning and uses 90 percent less energy than a typical building of this type. 

 

There are many examples of manufacturing, engineering or building design opportunities that could begin with inspiration from nature. Here's one from AskNature.org: Beaver provide a striking example of how animals influence ecosystem structure and dynamics … . Initially beaver modify stream morphology and hydrology by cutting wood and building dams. These activities retain sediment and organic matter in the channel, create and maintain wetlands, modify nutrient cycling and decomposition dynamics, modify the structure and dynamics of the riparian zone, influence the character of water and materials transported downstream and ultimately influence plant and animal community composition and diversity. 

How could our traditional methods of stream diversion, valley fills or water treatment be redesigned to provide the natural benefits of beaver dams? What would this mean for local ecosystems, including human communities? 

Three: Reinvest in natural capital. We know that natural systems provide us with products such as water, trees, fish, air and coal, but natural systems also provide services, many of which we take for granted: cooling from shade trees, flood control from deep root systems, water and air purification from wetlands, pest control from birds and bats, the list goes on and on. As human beings on top of the food chain and ever since the First Industrial Revolution, we believe we can design these systems as good as or better than nature itself. Then we see (if we choose to) our failings when industrial accidents occur, when communities become fragmented and left behind, when we end up on the bottom of national lists in terms of health, education, happiness. 

Perhaps the Second Industrial Revolution will ultimately position West Virginia not only as an energy leader in climate-neutral technologies, but also as a state that fully embraces its cultural and natural heritage by supporting all three of these systems in equal parts (the Triple Bottom Line) and by using nature as a model for success. We can't sit back and just wait for this to happen. We can't blame others for our own failures. We can't ignore our changing environment or the changing markets. 

We cannot be the victims. We have to work now to educate our kids, train displaced workers, support entrepreneurs, and really work together — all stakeholders — to make West Virginia's future prosperous and flourishing. Then all of us will be doing well by doing good.